The Book of Yaak

Robert Spillman reviews Rick Bass's book of essays entitled "The Book of Yaak".

By Robert Spillman

Published November 29, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

The Yaak Valley, one of the most remote places in the United States, is nestled in the northwest corner of Montana bordering Idaho and Canada, where the Rockies meet the Pacific Northwest. It's a wilderness filled with incredible biodiversity -- trees, rare orchids, wildflowers, grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, elk, moose and caribou. Bass, a geologist turned naturalist and short story writer, is one of only a hundred people who call the Yaak home. In this, his tenth book, Bass takes the reader on long walks through what can only be described as a spiritual place. With detail-rich prose, he relates the delicate rhythms that the valley's fauna, fish, wildlife -- as well as various human recluses -- go through over the course of brutal winters, short, spectacular springs and picturesque summers and falls.

In these interconnected essays Bass shows how the Yaak forms a vital link to other near and far wild areas, one absolutely necessary for the survival of the migratory animals he has tracked over the years. Then he introduces us to the land-rapists. Pushed out of the Pacific Northwest, multi-national lumber conglomerates have recently become hellbent on clear-cutting the old growth in this unique but tourist-unfriendly valley, a place not deemed worthy of governmental protection. Bass describes how the United States Forest Service uses tax dollars to build roads into pristine forests so that logging companies can denude whole hillsides, then send the logs out of state, and frequently out of the country. Local communities are given a short-term economic boost, but then are saddled with long-term ecological disaster.

While this book is a cry for help, it is also a meditation, one often worthy of Thoreau. Bass, having moved to the wilderness to pursue a solitary life of art, wonders what happens when the last wild areas are destroyed, whether one can live and create without the "grace and magic" that exist only in wild ecosystems. He worries that when a society destroys all that is mysterious, it dooms itself. "We need wilderness to protect us from ourselves," Bass warns in this passionate love letter to one of our last pristine lands, a paradise deserving of a country's respect and protection.

Robert Spillman

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